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Building Houses, Building Forests: AU's Rural Studio Blueprint for West Alabama Forestry Project

Innovative designs, unusual architectural techniques, and offbeat construction materials are the distinguishing characteristics of homes and community facilities built by Rural Studio students. A sharply angled roof, which is designed to allow rainwater to collect in a cistern, has earned this rural Hale County home a nickname as the “Butterfly House.”


       There may have been times, in those sorrowful final hours of 2001 and the first dark days of 2002, when some seriously questioned what the future held for Auburn University’s Rural Studio.

       For nine years, the Rural Studio had given AU architecture students the opportunity to make a dramatic difference in the lives in Alabama’s impoverished Hale County, by putting their education, their skills, and their spirits into designing and building low-cost innovative houses and community spaces using recycled, salvaged, and donated materials.
       But on Dec. 30, 2001, Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee died. Mockbee was co-founder and co-director of the Rural Studio—in essence, the very heart and soul of the program.
       “Sambo’s death shocked us all, and there was a lull there for a little while,” admitted Bruce Lindsey, head of Auburn’s School of Architecture and current co-director of the Rural Studio.
       As students and faculty of the Rural Studio came to grips with their loss, however, there grew a renewed commitment to take the revolutionary, nationally acclaimed teaching program to new heights.
       “Sambo had put together a very forward-thinking group of people who could carry the Rural Studio onward,” Lindsey said.
       And so they have done, as is evidenced by the growing number of unusual dwellings and innovative community spaces that are dotting the rural west Alabama landscape.
       The Rural Studio—a satellite campus, of sorts, of AU’s College of Design, Architecture, and Construction—was the brainchild of Mockbee and fellow AU architecture professor D.K. Ruth. The two came up with the basic concept for a hands-on teaching/community service program in 1992; a year later, a $250,000 grant from the Alabama Power Foundation made the dream a reality.
       In the decade since, more than 300 select AU architecture students have given up typical college life on the main campus to spend one to two semesters studying, working, and living at the studio’s student-built facilities in Newbern, Alabama. There, they’ve learned lessons they never could have been taught in a traditional classroom. They have learned to be what Mockbee called “citizen architects.”
       “Architecture should be about giving people places to live, instead of creating monuments to yourself,” Mockbee was often quoted as saying. That’s why he demanded that Rural Studio students become interim residents of rural Hale County.
       “Living in the community is a very important part of this program,” Lindsey said. “For virtually all of the students who go, this kind of poverty is beyond what any of them would ever have imagined. Being part of the community is the only way they can truly understand the needs of their clients and the environment they live in.”
       Each academic year, about 30 second-year and 15 fifth-year AU architecture students participate in the Rural Studio, along with four to six graduate students from other universities and other disciplines who are enrolled in the studio’s relatively new non-credit Outreach Studio program.
       The second-year students spend one semester—half of them the fall semester and the other half spring—in Hale County, where they design and build a “charity house” that they give away, no strings attached, to a destitute family that the students select from several families on a list provided by the Hale County Department of Human Resources. Close connections between the students and their adopted family ensure that the charity house design incorporates the family’s needs and preferences.

The walls of Yancey Chapel are built out of
recycled tires that a local tire dealer donated to
the Rural Studio. The roof is covered with tin,
the roof beams are salvaged from an old house,
and the floor is made of rocks taken from a
nearby riverbed.

       The innovative designs, unusual construction techniques, and offbeat and donated materials hold the total costs of each charity house to an average of $20,000 to $30,000.
       Meanwhile, the fifth-year students, all of whom are working on their theses, form teams and undertake community service projects that have included chapels, ball fields, parks, playgrounds, community centers, and farmers’ markets.
       All of the Rural Studio’s charity houses—this year’s students are nearing completion of the eighth—as well as the community facilities are startling in design and construction.
       There’s the Butterfly House, for instance, so called for its dramatic, sharply angled roof, which, by the way, is designed to catch rainwater. Then there’s the Bryant “Hay Bale” House, constructed of stucco-covered hay bales; the Lucy House, with walls built of old office-building carpet tiles; the Shiles House and Yancey Chapel, both strikingly designed and built of used tires; and the Mason’s Bend Community Center the remarkable roof of which is made of salvaged car windshields.
       Because all of the charity house recipients live below the poverty level, Rural Studio students design the houses to operate as efficiently as possible. Wood-burning stoves warm the houses in the winter; natural ventilation systems—evidenced by the studio’s trademark “big roof” design—keep them cool in the hot summer months.
       Funded strictly through grants, foundations, and individual support in its first decade, the Rural Studio got a major boost and endorsement this year when, for the first time, AU funded the studio’s operating budget.
       “We are thrilled to have the university’s financial support now,” Lindsey said. “It definitely enhances our sense of security.”
       Through the years, the Rural Studio has made its way several times into the national spotlight, having been featured on Oprah, Nightline, and CBS News, and in Time and People magazines, among others. Its uniqueness has led some to misclassify it as a socio-economic development program or a program similar to Habitat for Humanity. But from the beginning, Mockbee insisted that the program’s number one goal is educating students.
       As he said in a Southern Living interview shortly before his death, his goal was for graduates of the studio to “realize at some point that their talent and experience and knowledge can make a difference in the world; that they can contribute in some decent way to make a community a better place to live.”
       By its very nature, the Rural Studio—with its use of off-the-wall building materials, its emphasis on connecting with and meeting the needs of people in the community, and the significant difference it is making in the quality of life in the Hale County area—has earned a reputation in the architectural world as “a model of sustainable architecture.”
       Now, using the Rural Studio as a model, an AU associate professor of forestry is on a mission to make poverty-stricken, timber-dependent Hale County a “model of sustainable forestry.”
       Mark Dubois of Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences said a three-year study he is proposing would be what’s known as a participatory research project and would focus on timber landowners in rural Hale County, specifically the small-tract owners.
       “Our researchers would live in the community, like the Rural Studio students, so that they could connect with the people in the community and engage them in the research process,” Dubois said. “While the Rural Studio’s major emphasis is on educating Auburn architecture students, ours would be on teaching landowners ways to manage their forestland to make it more productive and as profitable as possible.”
       The west Alabama forest project would use philosophies similar to those of the studio.
       “The Rural Studio students meet with and interview the family they’re going to build a house for, to learn about the family and what they need,” Dubois said. “In our west Alabama forestry project, we’re going to be taking the same approach, getting to know the forest landowners and how they manage their land and market their timber now.”
       Much of that landowner information was compiled last summer by Sarah Crim, an AU forestry graduate student. Living on the Rural Studio campus in Newbern, Crim extensively interviewed 30 African-American forest landowners and female forest landowners in Hale County in an effort to characterize the group, including how they came to own their land and what their primary goals are with the land.
       “Do they sell timber as soon as it’s ready to cut just to get money to put food on the table or do they have more long-term plans?” Dubois said. “And how aware are they of timber as a business? Do they have any idea what their timber’s really worth, or do they just sell it to the first person who comes along?”
       Having concerned individuals come into their communities to help them find new markets for their timber and teach them sound management practices, the landowners could realize significant increases in forest income and set the stage for economic improvement in the county. Farther into the project, Dubois envisions the development of a demonstration forest in Hale County.
       “Our project will be, in essence, an economic development program,” Dubois said. “The Rural Studio builds houses; we will build sustainable forests.”


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